THE BLOG

Does Media Mix Islam and Politics?

08/07/2013 05:01 pm ET | Updated Oct 07, 2013

Are critics of Lauren Green's Fox News interview of author Reza Aslan wearing the same politics-tinted lenses that they ascribe to the interviewer? Is it possible to comment on Islam without a political sub-text? Is this an issue only since 9/11?

These are all questions worth scratching the surface of because the extreme positions ignited on both the left and right serve more to validate preconceived notions than spark any real reflection.

Old Habits Die Hard

Taking the last question first, the simple answer to whether the reporting on Islam has been skewed and politically colored only since 9/11, is no. Edward Said, the Palestinian-American author and thinker, in his 1997 book Covering Islam: How the Media and Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, comments precisely on this issue. In his analysis Islam became synonymous with the U.S. preoccupation with oil and rising extremism in the Arab world. A continuation of Cold War thinking led to the messaging becoming highly polarized and negative, and events like the Iranian revolution of 1979, and the ensuing hostage crisis at the US embassy did not help.

On the other hand, when the Mujahedeen were being trained to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Western media's reporting was largely positive and uncritical of western intelligence agencies cooperating closely with extremist Islamic organizations. Therefore, politics has defined the media's messaging on Islam for a considerable time now.

What If...?

One of the debating points in the Green-Aslan interview was whether it would have been such a big deal if a Christian had written about Islam. Interestingly, in 2008, author Nabeel Jabbour wrote The Crescent Through the Eyes of the Cross: Insights from an Arab Christian. In contrast with Aslan's book, which is an academic study of Jesus and his life, Jabbour's book is an inherently personal one, and attempts to bridge the gap between the East and the West.

Search through YouTube for any archival material of the mainstream media having interviewed Jabbour or invited a few talking heads to discuss the book and one will come up blank. As consumers of media, would we have tuned into PBS to watch in-depth discussions and reviews of Aslan's and Jabbour's books or it's just more practical to tune into cable news and get our daily fix?

Unsurprisingly, the media filters news in a manner that only the most newsworthy stories get out there. When they do, they can ruffle feathers, irrespective of religion. Writing in The Irish Catholic, which claims to be Ireland's largest religious newspaper, David Quinn complained that the recent death of a woman, Savita Halappanavar, due to complications in her pregnancy, was portrayed in the media as a "Catholic" crime, as she was denied an abortion. He accused the pro-choice lobby in Ireland of piggybacking on this unfortunate incident and blamed a lack of diversity in the media for only one point of view coming out.

Hope and Change

Speaking of cable news one must examine the evolution of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news network that is now synonymous with reporting the "other side" of the story. With the rapid developments since the Arab Spring, and Al Jazeera's acquisition of Current TV giving it access to 40 million US homes, there is no better opportunity for viewers to see a more holistic and accurate portrayal of changes in the Islamic world.

The Economist thinks so too, which is why in Jan 2013, in an article titled "Must Do Better" one of Western media's most respected publications called for Al Jazeera to maintain its reputation for even handed reporting and an independent editorial culture to be able to speak truth to power, as yesterday's revolutionaries become today's rulers.

Mohammed Morsi's recent ouster in Egypt is a textbook case of the very real challenge that the media faces when trying to divorce politics from religion. Would any commentary about his removal not include commentary about the army's long standing dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood? Much like the polarized Fox News vs CNBC editorial positions, Egyptians are seeing Al Jazeera take a proMorsi stance, while its main regional competitor Al Arabiya takes a pro army line.

Set-up for Failure

Therefore it is worth revisiting if the Lauren Green interview was doomed from the start, because of the platform that she was on. While other "extremist" TV and radio personalities have a track record of stirring controversy, to the best of one's knowledge this was the first time Fox News's religion correspondent was in hot water. While many critics have criticized the overall tone of the interview and the questions, it is hard to imagine a "safe" set of questions where people would not read between the lines and take offense.

Given the current geopolitical realities it would also be wishful thinking that Islam's coverage by the mainstream media will not continue to be mixed in with a heavy dose of politics. That would be similar to wishing the Trayvon Martin episode could be seen purely in terms of gun laws and not in terms of race.

We live in complex times where opinion is highly polarized. We have rewarded mainstream media for this type of content and editorial style. It is for the viewers and readers to provide feedback to their favorite show or columnist that we all need to change our ways.